Dungeons and Dragons
Trip Start Jun 12, 2006
62Trip End Nov 28, 2006
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For some reason, our Macedonian friends hadn't had enough of us after 27 hours on The Balkan Express. We drank coffee at a café across from the train station, and then Elena kindly walked us towards our accommodations as I carried a bundle of her paintings she made over summer for class. We made plans to meet later in the week.
Our hotel was a former communist apartment building, and if ever there was a smell I would associate with the word "industrialization", it was in that elevator. It was dank and metallic, like bars of iron that had been rubbed together since the days of Sputnik. As one might expect, the dungeon-esque rooms were small and boxy. As one wouldn't expect in a country formerly behind the Iron Curtain, the television produced the U.S
We dropped our bags and headed out to discover the capital of Slovenia. Ljubljana is as quaint a major city as there is, and I feel like I can say this without even seeing the rest of the world. The Ljubljanica River bisects the old town, with three major bridges holding it together - the Dragon Bridge, the Triple Bridge, and the Cobblers' Bridge. The Dragon Bridge was dedicated to a Hapsburg Emperor and has two dragons, the symbol of Ljubljana, at each end. The Triple Bridge was built by native son and much-beloved Joze Pletcnik to resemble the Rialto Bridge in Venice in recognition of the influence it had in this region. And the Cobblers' Bridge, another Pletcnik project, caps off a riverfront walk that is famous for people watching.
In Preseren Square, which is the main center of the Slovenian capital, we marveled at how small the town really was. It reminded me of a college town mixed with a state capital as we sat amongst the students underneath the statue of national poet France Preseren. I was impressed that a writer, not some guy on a horse, was the namesake of the country's greatest meeting place. With Preseren and Pletcnik as the artistic forefathers, a lively student population, and a nation that is at the precipice of fully joining the European community, Ljubljana really seems like a city ready for an explosion of the arts.
We continued our walk through Congress Square, which was basically ¾ Washington Square, ¼ Plaza of the Americas. The pathways cut through the rectangle of grass toward a circular center, and students were lounging wherever there was shade
The next morning, Alli wanted to try to find the president, but really she just wanted to shop in the endless riverfront stalls selling New York City street fair merchandise. I pulled her away from a silver stand, and we made our way towards the Ljubljana Castle atop the hill. After an incident over the definition of ice coffee, we enjoyed its sweeping vistas of the charming village below with a distant backdrop comprised of the Julian Alps.
By now, most people probably realize that I didn't vote for George W. Bush. As far left of center as I thought I was, though, nothing I had ever learned in the Cobb County Georgia public school system prepared me for what I heard from Elena when we met for drinks on our last night in town. In the heart of red-state America, they just don't teach you that a communist society can have serious benefits.
We met Elena at the statue in Preseren Square and casually walked around town, stopping for burek, for some of Europe's best people watching along the café-lined Ljubljanica River, and finally for a few beers in a leafy beer garden where, eventually, the conversation turned to politics
Without getting too specific, Tito was an enigmatic leader who banded together these different regions. He often ruled harshly, but people admired him for what he was able to do in keeping the country united. He was even given aid from the United States because his brand of "soft communism" rarely lined up with the Soviet style, and Tito considered himself as a bridge between the two world powers. Communism is the "evil empire", though, or so we were always taught.
Elena began to tell us about her parents and grandparents. I asked her what they thought about the old days, and to my surprise, she said they missed them. They missed Tito. They missed the affordable housing that the government helped provide. They missed the days when there weren't homeless people begging or stealing money to get by. They missed the days when everyone had a job. They missed the days of a large middle class, as opposed to the great division between today's have and have nots. They missed communism.
Is it possible that my school teachers in Marietta, Georgia only knew one definition of freedom? I mean, what is it really? I know I am free because I can write what I please. I know I am free because I can speak out against the government. But is anyone truly "free" in a world based on the cycle of production and consumption?
Someone once used public bathrooms as an example
I understand that capitalism is the only socioeconomic structure that seems to work - the communist experiment failed - but why is the world's only successful system one that is based on greed and who can "get" more? What's the point in having more when so many of us already have so much? And is it possible that people today have so much because someone else must have so little?
After talking to Elena, I learned that people think of freedom as a chance for everyone to live a decent life, not just the option to choose Coca-Cola over the communist-era Cockta. (I mean the stuff does taste like crap, but in today's Slovenia people are once again enjoying the "taste of their youth.") I began to understand why her family actually misses communism, an era when the government helped their family take vacations twice a year
After enjoying a much better cup of coffee, Ilan-Dime left to catch another train to Trieste, and Elena accompanied us to help find accommodations. She dragged her suitcase to the first hostel we tried, but it was full. We told her we'd be fine, feeling terrible since she had so much stuff, and insisted she hop in a cab after we swapped phone numbers. We found a hotel quickly thereafter and headed straight for the showers. It felt great to shower after that train ride!
We had some lunch, and then dove right into the first half of Rick Steves' walking tour. Ljubljana is a great little town surrounding a castle up on the mountain. It reminded me of many familiar places as we walked around and explored. It had the essence of a college town, but still maintained an urban atmosphere. There is a town center used for art exhibitions, as a meeting place, for an ice cream or coffee, or merely just as a people watching venue around France Preseren (the city's greatest poet is honored with a large statue at the center of the square)
We decided to try a touristy restaurant listed in our book and treat ourselves a bit. It was a self-described traditional Slovenian restaurant called Sokol, where the servers and bartenders are dressed in traditional Slovenian apparel and polka music is playing in the background. We had a good meal and some local beers and then called it an early night to catch up on some sleep.
We have had many hostels and/or hotels that bragged of free breakfast with the price of the room. More times than not, that means crappy coffee and some bread, butter, and/or marmalade. Sometimes, it means good coffee with bread. This is the first place that meant business when they said "breakfast included", and we took full advantage. There was a buffet, an actual buffet, with cereal and eggs, fruit and toast, juice and coffee. Are you serious? The coffee was crappy, but who cares? We ate like budget travelers with the intention of only having to buy one more meal that day, dinner.
Clearly after the biggest breakfast we've had since Dublin, walking was a must. So, we took the second half of Rick's tour to see more of the city. This walk included an open market, my favorite! In the outside part of the market, there were knick-knacks galore, tons of beautiful hand made ceramics and blown glass, clothing, sunglasses, etc
Coffee Sidebar: We stopped to satisfy my ice coffee urge, the crappy buffet coffee just didn't do the trick this day. The first place we went to didn't have ice coffee. I thought it a bit weird, but we weren't sure the server totally understood the request. Chad began to wonder if Slovenian's don't drink ice coffee, I found this thought ridiculous. If you drink coffee, it's not such a stretch to think you might put it over ice when it's hot out. The second place we entered said, yes, they had ice coffee. We sat down and I ordered ice coffee. The description in the menu included ice cream and whipped cream, I asked the waiter if I could just have the coffee. Alli: "Just coffee, milk, and ice?" Waiter: "Yes, coffee, milk and ice". What did I get? A room temperature Bailey's Irish coffee drink; no ice, no coffee, and a distinct hint of alcohol. Chad refused to believe there was alcohol in it and was now giving me the I-told-you-so lecture about how Slovenians did not drink ice coffee, at least as we know it. Apparently not, but I don't understand what is so difficult about pouring coffee over ice! I called the waiter over and asked him what was in the coffee. Rum was in the coffee; I was not crazy. Defeated, I asked for a simple coffee with milk as I was not interested in drinking rum
The next stop was a visit to Ljubljana's castle. This required a short, steep hike up a hill of mostly residential homes. When we reached the top, we watched a 3-D movie on the history of Ljubljana before climbing to the top for a sweeping view of the city. It was not crowded at all, and much of the time, Chad and I were the only ones up there. I enjoyed the calm atmosphere very much as I scanned the countryside and enjoyed the breeze.
That night we decided to go to a local Mexican restaurant, as we really wanted to switch it up and enjoy a cuisine we missed from home. The place was packed (mostly students), and the food was inexpensive and filling. We left satisfied, although, I wouldn't exactly call the food authentic!
We took it easy the next morning and went back to the room for some leisure time after our breakfast
Before meeting up with Elena, we stopped at one of the squares by the river for some traditional Slovenic folk dancing. We watched as the locals in costume danced to the accordion with pride (see attached file), and then met up with Elena for some drinks. She met us in the square, and upon hearing we hadn't tried the traditional "burak" yet, took us to one of the best places in the city. Then we went down by the river to have some drinks in the more popular part of town. Our last stop was a local bar, hidden in the trees with jazz playing in the background. We enjoyed one more drink with our new friend and had some good, thought-provoking conversation.
She explained about how it used to be before the war, and gave some insight as to how people her elder feel about the how things are now. As Chad teased her brain some more, I listened and tried to imagine what it must have been like for her, as a young child, and her family. We watch "coverage" on T.V., but I don't believe anyone can really get a sense for how war affects the people until you've spoken to someone who has been there. Although Elena was young, she was very well-versed about it. It was a conversation that really made me think about my own ideologies and theories on how a country should be run.